The Lakers and Nuggets came into Sunday's game the two hottest teams in the West. The Lakers had won 17 of 18 since the All-Star break and the Nuggets had won 14 of 18 since the Carmelo Anthony trade. Everyone (including myself) assumed the Nuggets would collapse once they traded Carmelo (in the same way the Jazz have since trading Deron Williams). But instead, they've actually gotten better. They might not have a go-to scorer when the game is on the line but they have an extremely deep and talented roster and are playing a team game like no other franchise in the NBA. All the NBA critics who complain about the selfish play, isolation offense, and lack of effort on defense should watch the new-look Nuggets.
The Nuggets might average a league-high 107.5 points per game but their success starts on the defensive end. Two of the reasons the Lakers have been so successful is they take care of the ball and exploit mismatches.
Usually those mismatches come on the block with the tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Gasol is the most skilled big man in the game but Nene has the right attributes to make things difficult on him. Nene is quick enough to stay with Gasol and strong enough to cause him problems when posting up. Gasol did finish 7 for 10 but Nene did a good job to hold him to just 10 attempts. As for Bynum, the Nuggets didn't have much of an answer for him on the boards. Bynum had 16 rebounds despite missing the last 7:15 of the game due to an injury - an injury that would prove quite costly to the Lakers (more on that later).
There were times when Kobe Bryant was matched up on Ty Lawson or Raymond Felton and he took advantage of those situations. But down the stretch it was Wilson Chandler who took on the task and he was up for the challenge. He kept Bryant in front of him and forced him into tough shot after tough shot.
Aside from these individual defenders, it has been a complete team
philosophy that has the Nuggets causing their opposition fits. Four
different players had multiple steals and those turnovers were the
biggest difference in the ballgame. The Lakers average 12.9 turnovers per game but the Nuggets forced them into 18 including 13 steals.
So was Carmelo Anthony really just that bad at defense? Has replacing him with Danilo Gallinari and Aaron Afflalo really made the Nuggets that much better on that end of the court? It's true sometimes Carmelo would slack off on defense but overall he's an above average defender. Jeff Van Gundy has a theory for why the Nuggets have been playing such good defense and it's as believable as any other I've heard.
Van Gundy mentioned he believes the defense has improved because everyone is involved on offense. With Carmelo gone, the Nuggets have spread the scoring around. In the 19 games since the trade nine different players have led the team in scoring and none more than four times. When players are involved on the offensive end they tend to play better defense.
While they might not have a superstar, they have four bench players that could start on most other teams. Felton and Gallinari were already starting for the Knicks (Gallinari started last night but usually comes off the bench for the injured Aaron Afflalo), for most of his career Al Harrington has started, and J.R. Smith is one of the most dangerous scorers in the NBA. This sort of parity could cause problems if the Nuggets were losing because egos would inevitably flair up but as long as they keep rolling everyone should remain happy.
What might be most impressive about the win over the Lakers though, was they won playing at the Lakers' pace. The Nuggets managed just 11 fastbreak points and nine of those came in the first half. They were held to 12 points under their average but their halfcourt offense was efficient enough to beat LA. The Lakers did their part, shooting 4-of-18 from downtown including a pair of open shots in the final couple minutes but most of the credit goes to the Nuggets' defense.
The Lakers still had their chances late in the game. Nene hit the front end of two free throws to take a 3-point lead with 11 seconds remaining. His second one was off the mark but Kenyon Martin outmuscled Lamar Odom and got the tip-in to put the game away. It looked like Martin got away with a push in the back and there's a good chance he wouldn't have been unable to push Bynum under the basket who was instead, sitting on the bench after getting injured midway through the fourth. But it was just another case where the Nuggets outhustled the Lakers.The win drops the Lakers to 2.5 back of the Spurs and moves the Nuggets within 3 games of the fourth-seeded Thunder. It's unlikely the Nuggets will be able to surpass the Thunder for homecourt advantage but they proved Sunday that they are able to win on the road against the toughest of teams because they are a complete team.